OPINION: Social networking travel sites or your favorite blogger?

Which is a better source of travel advice: your favorite social networking site or your favorite blogger? The answer is “it depends." It depends on how you use the cornucopia of information available to us today.

Bloggers can be sources of useful information or not, just as sites like TripAdvisor can be sources of useful information or simply raw data. You have to use any resource wisely, applying your own judgment and experience to interpret the information you’re given.

And importantly, you have to do your homework.

Consider this: when my wife and I visited Venice in the spring of 2009, we stayed at The Hotel Al Ponte Antico, at that time the hotel rated Number One by TripAdvisor members. In my subsequent review, I agreed that there were many reasons to recommend it but was also clear about it being a small, intimate hotel (only nine rooms) located right on the Grand Canal. That meant two things: it was not the place to go if you wanted a hotel where you’d be more or less anonymous, and that canal-side rooms might not be the quietest. All things considered, though, I gave it a rating of five out of five.

Some months later, another reviewer gave it a two out of five, complaining about the two things I’d mentioned in my review: the small size resulting in a lack of anonymity, and noise due to its proximity to the Grand Canal.

In another instance, I posted a very detailed review of The Lucerne Hotel, a favorite of ours on New York’s Upper West Side. In that review, I explained that the hotel was in the process of renovating its rooms. I noted that the suites would be the last to be completed and recommended that anyone interested in a suite ask about the state of the rehab before booking.

A short time later, another member posted a review complaining that their suite “obviously needed updating.”

What does that mean? It probably means these people didn’t read into the reviews very far or they would have seen what I (and others) had written. That’s part of being smart in your use of social media.

Another part is looking at the “credentials” of the reviewer. Has s/he posted more than one or two (or 10) reviews? In one instance, a fellow T/A member slammed the Four Points Hotel off the Magnificent Mile in Chicago because their “junior suite” didn’t have a separate room. That’s why it’s called a “junior” suite; obviously, that person wasn’t a very experienced traveler. More telling, however, was that the negative review (in which they complained that management wouldn’t upgrade them to a full suite for the same price) was the only one they had ever posted (at least under that particular screen name). That makes me think they established that account just to grind that particular axe.

In addition to looking at how many reviews a person has posted, look at whether the reviews are all good or all bad. Does the reviewer love everything, or can nothing make them happy?

Perhaps the Holy Grail, though it doesn’t happen often, is finding a reviewer who has reviewed an establishment you’ve already visited. If you’re lucky enough to find such a review, ask yourself how their experience aligns with your own. If you’re in sync, perfect!

Next, look at the property’s own web site. For my recent trip to Amsterdam, I briefly considered staying at a hotel called the Black Tulip after reading several reviews in which T/A members described as funky and avante garde, and noting that it was run by a gay couple. Some of the most creative, entertaining and just fun people I know are gay, so that was not an issue for me. However, when I went to the hotel’s web site, I learned the hotel catered to gay men with a bent for S&M. Perhaps in the interest of remaining “family-friendly,” TripAdvisor said nothing about this particular aspect of the hotel's "ambiance." Since then, the Black Tulip has closed its doors.

If you find a travel writer with whom you seem to be in sync, that is the best thing short of a recommendation from a trusted friend. That’s the dynamic that existed back in the days when newspapers had travel reporters (and restaurant and movie reviewers, for that matter): you’d eventually get to know whether your taste aligned with theirs and, as a result, you’d either take their recommendations or steer clear.

For me, Rick Steves is a great case in point. Rick, whom I've known casually for a number of years, is a great guy and a good writer with a specific point of view on how to travel: economically.

That is not the way I want to travel.

So, while I respect Rick’s experience and readily acknowledge he has some great tips (like where to buy tickets to museums and other attractions to either save money or avoid long lines), I’m not going to avoid a place simply because he thinks it’s too pricey, nor am I going to rent a van and hunt down campgrounds in Switzerland to save a few bucks. His style is not my style.

My recommendation is to find a blogger or columnist or travel reporter whose point of view fits with yours, and make him or her your first stop. Then, use social media, but use it wisely, which takes a fair bit of work. Finally, check out the web sites of the places you plan to visit to see what they have to say about themselves.

For a more thorough discussion of this topic, please feel free to download (and share) my guide.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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